FACTBOX: History of disputed Kosovo province

(Reuters) - Serbs and Kosovo Albanians hold talks on Friday on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in a last-ditch diplomatic bid to agree the fate of the breakaway Serbian province.

Here is a brief history of Kosovo, an ethnic crossroads for millennia in the heart of the Balkans and the cause of NATO’s first “humanitarian war” in 1999.


* Kosovo is a southern province of Serbia about the size of Connecticut or Qatar. It was first inhabited by Illyrian and Thracian tribes, ruled by the Romans then populated by Slavs in the 6th century. It became part of the Kingdom of Serbia in the early 13th century, with a mixed population of Serbs, Albanians and Vlachs. The Nemanjic dynasty made it the spiritual heartland of Serbia, giving lands to the Orthodox Church and building monasteries that stand today.


* The decline in Kosovo’s Serb population began with the Serbian defeat by the Ottoman Empire at the 1389 Battle of Kosovo. Over the next 500 years many left while the Albanians, converts to Islam, grew in number. Mutual expulsions and migration from Albania in the early 20th century changed Kosovo’s makeup. Today, two million Albanians form 90 percent of the population. Some 100,000 Serbs remain, less than half in the northern triangle backing onto Serbia proper and the rest in scattered enclaves watched over by NATO.


* Landlocked and poor apart from mineral deposits, Kosovo was an autonomous region of the Socialist Yugoslav Federation and had effective self-government in 1974. But ethnic tensions escalated in the 1980s as Yugoslavia began to crumble and economic conditions deteriorated. Populist Slobodan Milosevic used Serb nationalism as a springboard to power in 1989, restricting Albanian rights in education and local government. Strikes, protests and violence led Belgrade to declare a state of emergency in 1990 and send in the Yugoslav army and police.


* Albanians have officially demanded independence since renegade elections in 1992 made pacifist leader Ibrahim Rugova president of a self-declared republic. The demand was ignored as Serbs fought for pieces of Croatia and Bosnia. Support shifted to armed struggle by the Kosovo Liberation Army, a guerrilla force ready to fight for independence. Serb forces hit back so hard in 1998 that 100,000 Albanians fled to the hills and NATO powers warned Milosevic they would not tolerate more Balkan “ethnic cleansing”. Peace talks in France failed and in March 1999 NATO started bombing to force Serbia to withdraw. Some 800,000 Albanians fled or were expelled to Macedonia and Albania before Milosevic gave in 78 days later. His forces pulled out, and up to 200,000 Serbs and other ethnic minorities left too.


* Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations and patrolled by NATO since June 1999. Unemployment is more than 50 percent among the overwhelmingly young population. Kosovo’s uncertain future status virtually precludes outside investment. Spasms of ethnic violence, mostly by Albanians against Serbs, and criminal gangs trafficking in contraband and people, have tarnished its image with the West. Albanian leaders say only independence from Serbia can cure these ills.